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Building a Better Restaurant Bathroom

Restaurant bathrooms matter more than ever. But amid the quest for vibes and a good selfie mirror, where does function fit in?

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Muhammad Ali wallpaper in the bathroom
The bathroom at Detroit restaurant Union Assembly.
Gerard + Belevender/Eater Detroit

Going to the bathroom at Bluestockings, the worker-owned bookstore in New York City’s Lower East Side, was “an eye-opening experience” for chef Telly Justice. “I was shocked that this little bookstore had such an incredibly thoughtful bathroom,” she says. The space was stocked with condoms, sanitary products, and — most surprising to her — a sharps disposal container. “Any fine dining restaurant should look at this bathroom as aspirational.”

At the time, Justice was building out HAGS, the new restaurant she runs with her partner Camille Lindsley. She began to wonder: When it comes to the bathroom, what else am I not thinking about? Justice asked her Instagram followers what they wanted to see at HAGS, and responses piled in: soft lighting, calming music, seat warmers. There was debate about the merits of wall-mounted versus automatic versus chain-pull flush. “A lot of other people were woken up to that reality: I’m not served by my bathroom experiences, and it would be so easy to serve people better,” Justice says.

HAGS opened in July with a bathroom that’s stocked with fashionable jars full of floss picks, butter mints, fentanyl test strips, tampons, pads, and condoms. “We got what you need. That’s what we mean when we say ‘fine dining,’” read the restaurant’s Instagram post. “It’s not just about food anymore.”

Restaurant bathrooms matter more than ever — if for Instagram alone. But amid this quest for vibes and selfie mirrors, where does function fit in?

In public spaces, bathrooms can represent a consideration of dignity and who is deemed deserving of it, Justice explains. Though changes like gender-neutrality and changing tables (an accommodation for mothers entering the workforce in the 1980s) have shifted our understanding of what public bathrooms can offer, these spaces can still better serve the myriad of people who use them. “Our freedom to move, organize, and protest, and at the most basic level, live comfortably, is all tied to bathroom access,” the feminist magazine Lux claimed in a recent piece about the lack of public bathrooms in cities worldwide. In the hospitality industry, in which the entire raison d’etre is taking care of people, some hospitality professionals believe that there’s even more of an onus for restaurant bathrooms to take greater steps toward inclusivity.

Contento, a year-old restaurant in Harlem, has been hailed for its Peruvian dishes and wine program but also for its focus on accessibility, which plays out in its wine list, hiring practices, and its physical space. Gutting the long-unused storefront created a blank canvas, according to sommelier and co-founder Yannick Benjamin. “This was an opportunity to make sure that despite the fact that it was a small space, we were able to make it as barrier-free as possible,” says Benjamin, who is a full-time wheelchair user.

The Americans with Disabilities Act establishes regulations for physically accessible public spaces and restrooms, stipulating things like door width, grab bars, and layouts that offer enough turning space for wheelchairs. But making Contento a truly inclusive and welcoming space meant going beyond a list of legally mandated requirements, Benjamin explains.

There are the basic elements to the bathroom. Pocket doors, which slide into the wall rather than swing out, make it easier for people to navigate in and out. The locks can be used by people with a limited mobility range from their upper body. The soap and paper towel dispensers are touchless, and the toilet flushes automatically. The smallest details are considered; the flat space atop the toilet paper holder can be used as a surface for medical equipment like catheters, Benjamin adds.

He emphasizes how the entire experience of the bathroom was a consideration. “A lot of the bathrooms that are wheelchair accessible or that are ADA compliant tend to be kind of an afterthought,” Benjamin says, adding that this can be the case even in luxe, high-end places. In order to demonstrate a sense of care, “I wanted to make sure there were pictures up there, that it looked nice, and that [the grab bars] weren’t just any grab bars — that they look pretty as well.” In the age of the internet, things like pretty grab bars aren’t hard to find; they just require a little thought, he adds.

Brewability, a brewery in Englewood, Colorado, takes a similarly all-encompassing approach to accessibility. The first thing visitors see when they enter the brewery is a “sensory area,” which offers noise-canceling headphones, a giant Lite-Brite, and lockers filled with large-print cards and Braille. “That was intentional, to showcase to our customers that we are welcoming of everyone,” says owner Tiffany Fixter. A former special education teacher, Fixter opened Brewability and the connected pizza spot Pizzability in 2016 to employ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

As the sensory area makes clear, the design of Brewability’s physical space is crucial to its mission. Other features include color-coded beer taps and menus, weighted silverware, and a vibrational dance floor that allows guests who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have sensory sensitivities to still experience live music. These considerations extend to Brewability’s bathrooms. Inside, visitors will find spray deodorant, sewing kits, Tide wipes, Depends, sanitary items, and gloves and wipes that might be helpful for caregivers. A safety sign in the women’s bathroom offers the brewery’s main line as well as Fixter’s personal cell for any guest who feels in distress or in danger or needs other help. A number of visitors have told Fixter that the bathrooms are among the best they’ve experienced.

Fixter is in the process of getting a sink from the restroom accessibility company Max-Ability that can be adjusted up and down a track to better accommodate people who use wheelchairs, as well as an adult changing table. Fixter notes, “If there’s someone that struggles to change [the person they’re caring for], they’re not going to go out to eat unless they know that this is available.”

In some instances, accessibility and health code regulations can be at odds, Fixter has found. A recent health inspection called for a specific level of illumination in the bathroom, but bright lighting, and especially bright fluorescent lighting, can be harsh for people who experience headaches, seizures, and sensory meltdowns, she explains. To bring the bathroom to code without being intrusive, Fixter opted for a variety of dispersed LED light sources, like under the counters and under the mirror. “You want to be in compliance, but still be a safe space for someone with autism or with a seizure disorder,” she says. There can also be clashes between what helps different groups: While Fixter initially had a fuzzy floor mat at Brewability, intended because softer fabrics can be calming for visitors with autism, she removed it after realizing that it could be a tripping hazard for someone who is visually impaired and a hindrance for people who use wheelchairs.

Biplaw Rai, a managing partner at Boston’s upcoming restaurant and community space Comfort Kitchen, is considering the needs of the community his establishment is rooted in as he and his partners build out their space. Comfort Kitchen is located in the rapidly changing neighborhood of Upham’s Corner. Not only is Upham’s Corner lacking in public restrooms, says Rai, but it’s not far from an area of Boston associated with drug sales and usage, and so Rai and his partners are considering including Narcan and sharps disposal in the bathroom.

“Small businesses take the brunt of it,” Rai says. “It’s a city and state problem, but we end up picking up the pieces — even in terms of using bathrooms.” As Eater NY has reported, a growing number of hospitality establishments are offering harm reduction tools like fentanyl test strips and Narcan or naloxone in order to acknowledge “the reality of recreational drug use in New York City and the potentially positive role hospitality spots can have in protecting their communities, particularly in an industry where drug use is rampant.”

Despite a business owner’s best intentions, resources for creating more inclusive and accessible spaces can be hard to find. For this reason, Fixter — who oftens gets questions about how to make a space like Brewability — is working on an online course to help current and prospective business owners achieve something similar. As both she and Benjamin have found, the work doesn’t stop once the restaurant is open; feedback from guests who are actually using these spaces is essential.

From Justice’s point of view, the restaurant industry is long overdue for this rethinking of the public restroom. It’s very easy for fine dining restaurants and cool Instagram spots to curate a certain kind of clientele, she notes — one that’s rooted in a demographic that owners think represents their business well. HAGS, by comparison, hopes to be a call to action toward more accessible fine dining in all regards.

“The reality is that as public spaces we call everyone — and we should be calling everyone — and so we have to make everyone feel comfortable,” Justice says.